TB: I understand what you are saying. Would you talk a bit about the outdoor structure you have planned, which we talked about earlier?
DN: Sure. The trajectory of that idea, not including my childhood ambitions, but starting in NY when I cam here in the 60’s was that I really wanted to paint murals, but I was unable to paint murals. My early work is often misunderstood and written about as if it were sculpture. I never had any intention that it should be sculpture- I always thought of it as a way of making paintings, paintings that would be on the wall. I had seen the Matisse paper cutouts in Nice, the Apollo cutouts especially, and I got the idea from that in a way. It was a way of modernizing it, because you could put them up, take them down, move them around. You could use the wall and end up with a mural of some kind…I thought I could do that with canvases, that is why I started making shaped canvasses in separate pieces that could be hung together.
TB: The paper cut-outs are hung directly on the wall?
DN: Yes on a big wall - maybe 20’ long and 10’ high. Mural size, they are not meant to be seen one by one. There are wonderful things in that museum- these Tahitian paintings and other beautiful things- but the cut-out paper drawings on the wall just amazed me, I had never seen anything like it…I thought, “Yeah that’s the way to do it!” I didn’t want to make Matisses, but this was a way to make mural art, without having a commission, a job. I could do it in a studio, then store it and put it up later. This was my strategy for how to do that sort of thing. And then in ’69, Judd asked me to paint his fresco, and that was the first chance I got to that, and I began making more and more fresco projects and other sorts of architectural projects. I made a solar painting in the Newark train station, it is a triptych in an arch, that opens and closes with light…and I made these projects until they stopped happening.
TB: The article Michael Klein sent me about a boathouse - when was that built?
DN: In about ’97 a boy came to me who was an architectural student at Columbia. He was in touch with an Austrian painter who asked if this student could come visit me, and find out if there were catalogs of my work. He wanted the boy to bring them back to him.
The student came by and we became friendly- he liked my work very much, he saw what I did, and it came about that his father was a collector and he had built a house up in Middleburg, NY, Steven Holl designed it. He asked me if I would be interested in making a mural. He brought me the drawings of the house, and there were all these right-angle windows. I said, “There is really no place here to do a fresco, but I understand you want to make a pond, and maybe I could design a boathouse”…which would be kind of an excuse for a painting. I hadn’t painted any right-angle paintings in a long time, but I began making studies.ainting. I hadn’t painted any right-angle paintings in a long time, but I began making studies. I wanted to make a very formal right angle painting, mural cycle. And this would be a really good chance to do that, plus I was going to be able to design the building- my idea of paradise- to design the building to accommodate the painting. How great! Everything went well, the father agreed in principal to do it…and he came and saw the first models and drawings I had made for the building, and he said, “This looks like a bus stop.” I said, “Oh, fuck you, that’s the end of this project, I can see that.” He said, “All I want is just a painting next to the lake.” (laughter) So I made another design…which took another 2-3 years, which was a kind of painting on stilts, in an “X” shape. One long wall with two diagonal walls on either end. That would be out along the water, in the water, with a kind of roof. And then he found out how much that would cost to build. And then he said, “What about that first painting?” So he went back to the boathouse concept. By this time, his son had graduated from college, and about to assume a career as an architect. They began working from my design, but then my design got completely fucked up. I had a pitched roof on mine, I had a different scale, I had an idea about the walls that made it unnecessary to have posts coming out of the walls. He changed this, but everything else was like my design, which was a kind of floating building on the pond with a channel which you could bring your boat up into- a three- sided right angle structure inside this glass boathouse. I went up there and I painted it. It was supposed to be a fresco, he reneged on that. He brought over a farmer from Austria, from one of his estates who he said knew how to plaster. The guy came over and put up a crappy wall. So the whole thing was kind of going down the drain. But I kept “sucking it up”, because I wanted to make the project so badly…I took my son up with me and we made it in about 2-3 weeks. I think it is one of the best projects I have ever made!
TB: It looks beautiful
Boathouse, building design and murals. 1996-2003. Oil on plaster, Middleburgh, NY
DN: Thanks, yes I thought it was really good. I had made hundreds of very finished watercolors and studies for it, and I wanted to keep them all together, I had a huge archive from this project. And I said to the son, “Tell your father, if he will agree to certain conditions, I will give him the whole archive.” But I want him to make a publication, and I want him to agree that this work will go to a public institution, and be seen, not just hidden away. He agreed, said, “Yes, yes.” And I gave him this box, it weighed about 100 lbs, and I took it up to their house, and I left it up there. Then as the project went on, I realized this guy had no intention of filling any of my requests…he just wanted the stuff. So I went up there and snuck into the house and stole back my work. At that point the project was finished. I hadn’t heard anything from anyone about the project- finally the son called me and I asked’ “What do you think of the job, do you like it? Do you think it is good or bad?” He said, “I like it but my father doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the way you painted the lines.” I thought, “He doesn’t have to like it.” The son also said, “My father says you have to return those drawings to him.” By this time I had also given them models, plus he stole one of my notebooks. So I am sitting there without the first, and most important, notebook, and I said, “No I’m not going to return that box. He hasn’t done any of the things I has asked him to do. He hasn’t made the slightest effort towards doing any of them! He just wants to hold onto a whole bunch of stuff. I got a letter back saying, “My father has instructed me to tell you that you may never come up to the boathouse again, you may never come here again, you may never publish any pictures of the boathouse, etc, etc.” Of course they couldn’t stop me from publishing anything, in fact I could stop them from publishing it. And that is the end. It is a very sad story because I would like that thing to be public, to have people see it. A lot of the fresco projects worked out very badly sociologically. I made a huge fresco cycle in the Miami courthouse, and that led to many arguments, several years later someone wanted to tear it out.
Fresco. 1983 Old Miami Federal Courthouse, Miami FL
TB: Is that the one with the tilted walls?
DN: No that’s in Dallas. That one is fine, that one worked out very well, it was a very nice project. But this one in Miami, which was vast, and took enormous backbreaking work, really hard work- I put everything into it- then the GSA (General Services Admin.)- (around the same time as the Serra controversy over the “Tilted Arc”) wouldn’t put up a piece Chamberlain had made. And this thing that everybody had liked initially, this courtyard I had painted, became the subject of many arguments! The preservationists didn’t like it because they said my painting wasn’t in keeping with the historic nature of this 1930’s Art Deco pastiche of a Spanish courtyard…there is no point going back over all this. It is just that it is very disappointing to make these projects to have most of them be destroyed or…damaged.
Untitled, 1977 Fresco, Gooch Auditorium, University of Texas Health Science Center, Dallas TX
TB: Yeah it must be very hard.
DN: That’s why I am glad I am going to be able to re-do the Judd painting.
When I made the paintings for Bob Graham in LA he had me make old paintings that had been destroyed. I remade them in different scales and in different places. It was a record of things I had done before. He wanted to have these, because he really liked the ‘60’s and 70’s paintings. It was his idea.
TB: So the model you have in your studio is a dream for you, something you would really like to have…
DN: Yeah it is a dream, but it has been a dream since 1970, consciously. I tried to get Heiner Friedrich to do it, and I made exhibitions about it with Riko Mizuno in LA. I have shown material related to it here…I tried to get Heiner to build it on the roof of the Dia building…but he was never interested in my work, so that didn’t happen. I kept striving, and doing these other projects and thinking about it…plus some of the looser ways I have been painting in the studio- (I have been painting this way for a long time). I was thinking about the argument between decoration and meaning (and content) because I liked that one could do something where both things have equal power. And that’s what I am doing now. I have never really developed a way of painting that…so every time I paint, I try again. Same with the right angle paintings. When I begin painting them there is a lot of confusion I have to work through- they aren’t “a to b”- it is always fresh- I can go over something for ten years and it will still be fresh
Untitled, oil on canvas, 6 panels, 9’ x 18’, collection of artist.
Untitled, 1977-78, Oil on canvas, 9’ x 27’ Collection: Bank of America
TB: I understand that. Thank you David.
DN: My pleasure.
Thomas Butter has been living in NYC since 1977, and showing since 1981. He is currently on the Adjunct Faculty in the Fine Arts Department at Parsons the New School for Design, and has taught at many colleges and universities on the east coast, including RISD, Harvard, Yale, Tyler, MICA, University of the Arts, and many others. firstname.lastname@example.org website: www.tombutter.com
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